The Saga of the Vesta

A piece of our history lies buried in the sand on Sunset Beach: The Vesta, a blockade runner during the Civil War. Her story is an interesting one, providing an example of the ships often called the “Lifeline of the Confederacy.” Her story will begin here and continue into the next two sections.

After the war started in 1861 President Lincoln declared a naval blockade around all of the southern ports. This was a tall order for a federal navy with only 42 ships at the time. In addition, the coastline ran almost 3,600 miles. At the same time, the Confederacy quickly realized that it needed an effective way to bring supplies to both troops and citizens. The economy of the South in those days was primarily agricultural with little manufacturing. The war effectively ended trade with the North and limited commerce with England and Europe by Lincoln’s order.

Of course, the Confederacy did not have a navy at all initially and relied on private ships to bring in goods. These blockade runners provided a vital supply link and were also a lucrative, if risky, enterprise. They operated primarily from Bermuda and the Bahamas. Although we often think of blockade runners as supplying weapons, ammunition and other military needs, they also provided ordinary goods which were not available locally. Cargo coming into southern ports included bacon, coffee, scythes, and machinery, tools and parts. On the return trip the ships carried primarily cotton and naval stores (tar, pitch, turpentine and rosin) for export to England from the islands. Both were in demand and brought good prices.

Officers were usually allowed to bring a certain amount of goods on  board for their own profit. Wages for the officers and crew were generous and deservedly so for the potential danger involved. The Captain and Pilot received the highest amount, $5,000 and $3,500 respectively for a round trip voyage taking 2-3 weeks. In today’s dollars, the Captain would earn approximately $273,500. Ordinary sailors could earn $250, about $13,675 now, and their wages were sometimes paid in gold.

Owning a blockade runner could bring riches or ruin. The conventional wisdom was that one successful round trip could pay for a ship, as well as the wages for the crew. However, the ships if captured became the property of the Union, along with their valuable cargo. These seized ships were frequently turned into blockading ships under the command of Union officers. Other blockade runners were chased until they ran aground, resulting in a loss of both ship and cargo.

Many of the first blockade runners were privately owned side-wheelers which were pressed into service. Their shallow drafts allowed them to operate where other ships might run aground on sand bars. One of the more successful side-wheelers was The Giraffe which was renamed The Robert E. Lee.

Entrepreneurs who were willing to take the risks of blockade running looked for ships which were faster and more maneuverable. The demand for better vessels brought about innovation in ship building. The Dudgeon Brothers, a ship yard in London, developed new ships with twin screws and more speed. These ships were both fast and maneuverable although their design resulted in a deeper draft.

Two businessmen, Richard Crenshaw of Richmond, Virginia and Alexander Collie from Manchester, England, formed a partnership to run blockade runners between Bermuda and the southern ports. To enhance their chances of success, they commissioned the Dudgeon Brothers to build four steamships with powerful engines and the new twin screws. The engines were coal burning but the ships were also outfitted with masts and sails to take advantage of wind and save on coal.

The identical ships were the Ceres, Hebe, Dee and Vesta. The four sister ships were 165’ long, weighing 262 registered tons. Another larger ship (almost twice the size) built by the Dudgeon Brothers was the Aries, which will figure into the final chapter of our story.

Captained by E.H. Eustace, the Vesta sailed to Bermuda to load cargo for Wilmington in December 1863. The usual assortment of goods went on board, including whiskey stores for the officers and crew. What could possibly go wrong? Will they have a safe voyage? Do they ever arrive in Wilmington?

To read the next chapter in the story of the Vesta, click here.